By Sharon Chin

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — A South Bay teenager is helping special needs students celebrate their uniqueness and reach their full creative potential.

Simrithaa Karunakaran teaches a free art class after school each week at InFUSE, a San Jose program that empowers special needs, otherwise known as neurodiverse students.

“They have misconceptions about their abilities for themselves just because of what society’s put upon them,” Karunakaran said. “They aren’t sure of what their own talents are.”

The Evergreen Valley High School senior started her “Hand-in-Hand Art” program last year after volunteering at InFUSE for two years.

“I really wanted to showcase their true potential and true creativity through these art lessons,” she said.

Naz Nilchi says her 12-year-old son Ryan Ghazavi has gained friends and self-confidence thanks to the teenager, whom he calls Simi.

“He feels that ‘I can do it,'” Nilchi said. “That’s huge. That’s what volunteers like Simi brings to the program.”

In addition to the art class, Karunakaran also organized a prom for the students.

She came up with the idea after the students asked her about her own junior prom.

They told her they were not comfortable going to the prom at their schools.

“I felt like a princess that day at my prom, and I wanted to them to feel the same at a prom that they could attend,” she said.

She helped more than fifty students decorate and design their own all-inclusive dance last spring.

It included a fashion show.

Participants like 19 year old Valbhav Gobalakrishnan had never been to a prom before.

Now he can’t wait to help plan next year’s.

“Simi’s the one who brings joy and a smile to me,” he beamed.

Karunakaran, who plans to be a neurosurgeon or neurologist one day, is a dear friend to all, according to InFUSE Co-Founder Brendan Pragasam.

“She’s treating everyone equally, and treating everyone like they’re their own special individual,” he said.

“They all have the capability of being the next Einstein, the next Picasso. I want to make sure they see that for themselves,” Karunakaran smiled.

So for empowering neurodiverse students with opportunities, confidence and a sense of belonging, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Simrithaa Karunakaran.